Mercifully, the Sharks bye week is over and they have returned to the ice to continue separating themselves from the Pacific Division. San Jose is clearly the best team in the division and should be able to maintain first while giving Martin Jones rest down the stretch. With that in mind, it is time to look ahead to the part of the season that actually matters: the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at what lies ahead for the Sharks in the playoffs, because the last 20ish games are just a formality at this point. This will be a Western Conference specific breakdown, because who knows what will happen out East (spoiler: the Capitals will get bounced in round 2, as per playoff tradition.)
Phoenix Arizona and Colorado are actual jokes.
Dallas and Vancouver are nine points back and need to pass multiple teams to get in so they are cooked. Winnipeg is much closer, but holds no games in hand and are not exactly lighting the world on fire (4-4-2 in their last 10) so we can pretty safely rule them out. If they somehow sneak in, don’t forget to tell me I am dumb on Twitter, it would be the right thing to do.
Now that we have the dregs of the conference out of the way, the remaining playoff and playoff hopeful teams can be sorted into two distinct groups. The first being potential first round matchups which will most likely be a wild card team. The second group are second and third round opponents. First, let’s dive into those wild card positions.
FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS
Calgary: 63 GP 70 points 33-26-4. Playoff History: Met in 1995 (W7), 2004 (L6), 2008 (W7) It is not easy to forget the 2004 series against Calgary; San Jose was looking down the barrel of a great opportunity to go to the Finals. Instead the Flames continued their Cinderella run and San Jose was left wondering what happened, an all too common occurrence for the Sharks.
This year’s iteration of Calgary currently holds down the first wild card spot meaning if they can stay there, they will face the Sharks in the opening round. I personally am not thrilled about a Flames matchup. Yes they are inferior, but they have the kind of young, fast team that can expose certain players and roster decisions. The bright side is Calgary has a weak goaltending situation right now and aren’t exactly the deepest team out their.
St. Louis: 61 GP 67 points 31-25-5. Playoff History: Met in 2000 (W7), 2001 (L6), 2004 (W5), 2012 (L5), 2016 (W6). The Blues were chokers long before the Sharks were even created and took that mantle on. Included in the Blues’ illustrious choke job history is a particular 2000 series against the eighth seeded underdog Sharks. Men of a certain age will remember a 90-foot bomb by Owen Nolan in the opening period of game seven, setting the stage for one of the all-time great upsets.
The 2017 Blues are not exactly a powerhouse and may actively be giving up on snagging the second wild card spot. They just got rid of Kevin Shattenkirk, whom was a UFA hell-bent on signing with the Rangers, but nevertheless was a key cog on the blue line. This is not the same powerful Western Conference Finals team San Jose ran into last year. The goaltending has been shaky, the defense now down a key piece, and the forward crew not as potent as last year. I would be totally okay with the Sharks opening the playoffs against the Blues.
Los Angeles: 62 GP 65 points 30-27-5. Playoff History; I’m not reliving 2014. You can’t make me. Other than that they basically meet every year.
Friends, gather round, I have a secret to tell you. The Kings are not good. You will hear the excuse that Quick missed 60 games, but that’s okay because Peter Budaj played admirably in his absence. So no, the goaltending has not sunk them this year. Some players have regressed and others just are not that good and if you take a look around the roster, it just is not constructed that well.
They are currently on the outside looking in and need to make up ever dwindling ground on the Blues and Flames. To paraphrase noted clown Drew Doughty, “You can see it in their eyes” and what I see is a team that knows it is not good and shouldn’t be in the playoffs. Still, I’d take a hard pass on playing them again because one loss could trigger serious PTSD in San Jose.
SECOND AND THIRD ROUND MATCHUPS
Minnesota: 60 GP 86 points 40-14-6. Playoff History: None.
Fun fact: Bruce Boudreau has won his division every year he has coached a full season. This trend is likely to continue as Minnesota sits atop the Central. They are a good team. The numbers above show you they are the best team in the West and have serious Cup aspirations. They’re currently riding very high shooting and save percentages and it’s Minnesota. I am not scared of Dubnyk, Boudreau or a creaky forward corps relying on Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Martin Hanzal.
Chicago: 62 GP 83 points 39-18-5. Playoff History: Met in 2010 when Chicago waxed San Jose in four games. Surprisingly, that beat down is the only time these two teams have ever met in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks are a good franchise and this year is more of the same. This is a team that regularly competes for the Stanley Cup and should not be taken lightly. Yes, they have flaws and are probably worse than years past, but that doesn’t change the fact they still have a group of three-time Stanley Cup Champions on the roster. It is much more advantageous to hopefully avoid them than it is to go through them.
Nashville: 62 GP 71 points 31-22-9. Playoff History: Met in 2006 (W5), 2007 (W5), 2016 (W7). I have almost no recollection of the earlier matchups, but fondly remember 2016 game seven when San Jose shelled Nashville 5-0. Good times.
Nashville very well could find its way back into the wild card or miss the playoffs completely. Do I think that will happen? Probably not. They hold a small advantage over the Blues, and with St. Louis getting worse it seems logical the Preds will stay afloat for third in the Central.
The Predators got off to an extremely rocky start, but found their groove and have clawed up the standings. This is a well-rounded team with a solid defense led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, and a forward group with an on fire Forsberg. The goaltending, usually a sure thing, has fallen off with the decline of Pekka Rinne. If Rinne can’t maintain average level play it may be tough sledding for the Predators.
Anaheim: 63 GP 74 points 32-21-10 Playoff History: One time the Ducks upset the Sharks in round one during a 1 v 8 matchup. Somehow that is literally the only time they have ever met in the playoffs. Weird.
So remember when I said the Kings weren’t good? Neither is Anaheim. They hired Randy Carlyle to be coach and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine just know the Ducks are worse in almost every category. The Sharks should skate circles around these guys and promptly usher them out of the playoffs. The Ducks are buoyed by a lot of OT/SO loss loser points and are in no way in the same class as the Sharks. My extreme confidence probably means San Jose gets swept.
Edmonton: 63 GP 74 points 33-22-8. Playoff History: One time in 2006 the Sharks lost to a Cinderella story Edmonton team, and... stop me if you heard that story before. This is the only meeting because Edmonton has been an abject tire fire for pretty much my entire life and I am almost 28.
Okay, so this is the important one. Edmonton is freaking scary for one reason, and one reason only: Connor McDavid. He is already a top three NHL player and has dragged the inept Oilers into the playoffs. He has a Crosby-esque impact on the game and even has his own version of Malkin in Leon Draisaitl.
A McDavid-Draisaitl 1-2 punch is a fearsome duo. In previous meetings, the Sharks brain trust thought it was wise to put the ageless yet painfully slow Thornton line up against McDavid, who is arguably the fastest hockey player ever with the puck. It ended exactly as you think it would.
Now, come playoffs I fully expect a much more fleet of foot line to matchup and try to contain him. However, he may just be semi uncontainable, which means it will be a team effort to stop the rest of the squad. This is actually quite doable for as lucky as the Oilers brass were to fall into McDavid, they still haven’t put a full team around him.
The bottom forwards are exactly that and the defense still has holes, because unsurprisingly Adam Larsson was not the answer to their problems. Cam Talbot in net has been good but he isn’t scaring anyone when you think about it. I do think the Sharks can and should beat the Edmontonians, but it’s the team that gives me the most pause. I never thought I would be saying this, but Edmonton has to be taken seriously.
So after all the likely teams have been examined, it seems two paths can be formed. There is the hopeful path-of-least-resistance in St. Louis, Anaheim, and Minnesota; which in my estimation seems like the best path to take. Or there is the knock-down-drag-em-out warpath of LA-Edmonton-Chicago. Either way, the Sharks are ready.